Climbing Cold Mountain

I’m not one for meditation or inner exploration, but Cold Mountain can have that effect on a person. The Indian farmers and hunters of yore knew about its pulling power; so do uptight New York City publishing moguls. Many times, I’ve stared in mouth-open amazement at the mountain’s gaunt sides towering over the Bethel and Cruso valleys like a lost pyramid.

Whether standing in its constant shadow or bivouacked among its armies of prickers and thorns, you can see how it slips under the skin of even the shallowest person. This is the stepping-off point to rugged magnificence. About a month ago, a story was pitched to me, to be published at the start of leaf-peeper season: Why don’t you read the much-ballyhooed novel Cold Mountain, then go and climb the source of all that Pulitzer-prized mania and see just how far under your skin it can go?

I accepted. I’d climbed Cold Mountain before, but this was a new angle. As it turns out, this was to be my last story for Xpress; I got laid off a week later. (Don’t wait for the punch line, because there isn’t one.) Immediately, I saw myself as a victim of the whole supply-and-demand tyranny of publishing economics — and then my car died. Living in Asheville, I took this to be a sign, and I resolved to enter the woods like that old philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. I went to find myself, to answer this challenge.

I was ready for Cold Mountain.

A new timing belt, distributor, coil (whatever that is) and a cool grand later, my worn-out Honda whisked me deep into the heart of Haywood County and southwest to the foot of the Shining Rock Wilderness. I carried your typical backcountry, weekend-warrior-type gear, plus a few extras like a transistor radio and Mad magazine. Yeah, yeah, you backpacking purists may groan; I used to be hard core myself — shortening the laces on my boots and cutting the labels off my shirts to lighten the load. Alas, I’m a softie now, having traded rigid leaves for a liberal supply of Charmin.

This section of the Art Loeb Trail (Loeb was a local hiking enthusiast, and his namesake route stretches for miles across the Pisgah National Forest) rises fast, with some switchbacks that are more up than across. The landscape is thick with the flora you might expect — rhododendrons; beeches; big, four-people-couldn’t-reach-around-them oaks; birches; maples; dozens of others — plus some gargantuan granite outcroppings, spliced now and then by slow-tumbling creeks.

I guess I was sensing the bigness of it all when I suddenly started feeling possessive, like I was vigorously protecting some California point break. I’ve sat through countless civic meetings, listening to local elected types telling me how wonderful it is to live here — that these mountains are my home to protect, to pay taxes on. I was believing it — ready to scowl at any weekend yahoo I might come across on the trail, never mind that I’ve lived in Western North Carolina myself for only three years.

Luckily, I didn’t meet anyone early on who might have put this greenhorn in his place. Instead, I hit my stride and was taking that mountain in. I was taming it. Besides the fact that my oxygen was depleted, I might have yelled out, “Cold Mountain, you’re not so bad!” — but then Mother Nature quickly reminded me who’s boss. While staring dreamily at some umbrellalike fungi, I smacked my shin on a thick shoot of rhododendron and stumbled into a stand of Devil’s Walking Stick. If you’re hiking and mistakenly grasp the trunk of this small tree, you’ll need no further assistance in identification. The searing pain (courtesy of short, thick spines) is truly memorable — more than enough to make you forget about your bleeding shin.

During the next couple hours’ worth of climbing, while intermittently licking my wounds, I started to daydream about Cold Mountain, the book. If you’re from another planet and haven’t yet heard about it, I’ll give you the very-short skinny: Back in 1997, an up-to-then-undistinguished English professor, raised in WNC and based in Raleigh, published what might be one of the most remarkable novels of the last decade and suddenly became very distinguished — landing on best-seller lists, reeling in the highest awards available, and inciting two of the biggest names in bluegrass to compose an entire CD in the book’s honor.

The plot involves a mountain-born Confederate soldier, Inman, who gets wounded for the third time and deserts the army to go home to his sweetheart, Ada. His journey back to Cold Mountain is a long and perilous one, and he survives impossible odds aided by an unusual handgun that dispenses shotgun shells as well as regular bullets (his ability to walk great distances while freezing and starving also helps). Often, Inman eats whatever he can scavenge while hiding out in various pockets of the Blue Ridge — and this is where I tipped my hat to the novel. I didn’t have Inman’s shotgun/pistol, only the four-inch buck knife my little brother bought at the Big Five, so I wasn’t going to be killing any game.

However, I tried to do the next-best (but ultimately stupidest) thing I could. All around me, the forest was dropping seeds: I decided to explore what was edible.

Ignoring the wisdom of another book I’d read recently (Into the Wild tells the story of a guy who unwittingly poisons himself with nuts and roots), I started munching on the likes of sassafras and yellow buckeyes, both of which tasted frighteningly like aspirin — or maybe cyanide.

Next, I found a little bit of some kind of white fruit and a couple of black walnuts that weren’t dried yet but weren’t awful, either. Then I moved on to acorns. I read somewhere that the Chumash Indians used to gather acorns — which are poisonous — crush them, and filter out the poison with sand and water. Harder than it sounds — mostly because I forgot about the necessary filter basket. Basically, I made a mud pie, nearly knocked out a couple of fillings, and decided that if it wasn’t for the ramen noodles and an ample supply of beef jerky in my bag, it would have been a totally empty-stomach trip.

Maybe more importantly, I realized I wouldn’t have lasted a mountain minute in those old times.

Putting the novel — and probably a horrible death — behind me, it was onward and upward. Just before I reached Deep Gap, a sort of crossroads at about 5,000 feet, I bumped into an old fella coming down from Shining Rock, who said he hadn’t climbed Cold Mountain since he was a young man. Though he made his way spryly, by the look of him, I judged that to mean sometime before the Korean War. We indulged in small talk, and I thanked him for warning me about the black snake he said was lying in the trail up ahead.

I never saw the black snake; instead, a red toad crossed my path. What did that mean?

A short hike later, I was in Deep Gap. From there, it’s a sharp turn to the east and another hour to the summit of Cold Mountain — 6,030 feet. Four hours later, I got there, just in time for the Simpsons skies beyond the western cliffside viewing area to give way to some intense mountain fog (clouds, for you laymen). Socked in — but I was the only one up there, and it felt eerily serene. Later in the night, while I was listening to A Prairie Home Companion on my transistor radio and adding a few sour notes with a harmonica I’d brought along, the clouds lifted a bit in the east and I could see Canton.

Funny, with the steam and all those lights, the paper mill looks almost celestial at night. The next morning, I got the kind of crystal views of the Shining Rock and Middle Prong wildernesses that you can either read about and try to imagine or get off your butt and seek out for yourself. I hung out for a little while, searching for evidence of the fire that had ravaged the area a couple of years back (I didn’t see much) and then headed for home.

On the way down, I revisited one of the huge, off-the-path stumps I’d noticed during my ascent. I tried to pretend it was one of the famous “gray ghosts” of the great American chestnut trees that once dominated the area but were basically eradicated from these mountains a century ago by a merciless fungus. A dendrologist would probably tell me I’m an idiot, and that it was just a big pine tree — but that didn’t stop me from carving a special someone’s initials in it, anyway. It made walking home easy.

Want to scale this famous peak yourself? Check out Kirk Edwards’ Hiking North Carolina’s Pisgah Ranger District (Soco Publishing, 1998), which includes a trail map to Cold Mountain.

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